The story so far:
Riley just wanted to study. Instead, Zoey dragged her to a cave where her parents’ initials were carved. Ethan quit the general store. Louis returned, only to be eaten by a shadow. Riley defeated it, but can’t accept that reality now has monsters in it. Zoey has just brought her home.
Feeling drained, I staggered into the barn. The darkness inside was soothing at first, but that only lasted a heartbeat. My eyes darted to the thicker shadows, looking for movement. Are you going to tell me to save her, I questioned them silently, then decided it would be smarter to stop tempting fate.
I raced past equipment and tools that I couldn’t name. Past a row of massive hay rounds. Ton bales? It didn’t matter. There was a ladder near the middle of the barn that led up to the loft, and I wasted no time getting there. Light was spilling in from above, so I knew the hay door must be open.
That meant Ethan wasn’t far away. I couldn’t remember if I’d seen his truck in the driveway, or if I’d even bothered to look for it when we passed. If he was up there, he’d want to talk about feelings, and plans. More things that I couldn’t handle right then. It was more likely that he wasn’t, and when I reached the top the loft was empty.
“Ethan?” I called, in case I couldn’t trust my eyes, too.
It smelled like old wood, spiked with the sweet odor of fermented chicken feed. A block and tackle swung outside the door, though this room hadn’t been used to store bales for many years. Zoey, Ethan, and I had quickly claimed it for our own. It was our place to watch the things in the sky as we gossiped about the people on the ground. We used to have a rope hooked up to the block and tackle for quick escapes, but Rose pitched a fit about how dangerous that was, and made us take it down.
The knots of tension in my shoulders began to unwind as I unlocked those happier memories. It had been my mom’s favorite spot when she was a teen, which made it special to me, too. To the side of the hay door was a painting she had left on the bare wooden wall. It was well faded now, but I could still make out the sunrise over a mountain range. An army of pine trees waited in its shade, eager for their first glimpses of light.
Facing the door, a wide cushioned chair stood guard with a short cabinet beside it. A bottle of Jack sat on top of that. Tempted, I stared at the nearly-full bottle, then reluctantly turned away. I didn’t need that kind of help. Not until I’d gotten my head back on straight.
Sometimes I came up here to drink with Ethan and Zoey, even though we weren’t old enough. Just don’t overdo it, Ethan had laughed at me. It had been my first night in town, and I was wearing my anxiety like a coat. Cops aren’t going to know s’long as you’re not an idiot about it, or go jumping out the door, or something like that. He’d been sitting in the same chair that I was slinking into, trying to sound so mature. Trying to show off to me, a new graduate, when he’d only been a big, bad adult for a year himself. It hadn’t been hard for him to drop some cash in the Gennie’s register and make off with an occasional bottle of this or that. As long as he was paid, Parker didn’t care enough to put a stop to it.
I ran my fingers over the old upholstery and grinned. The fabric was still warm. He hadn’t been gone for very long. Grateful for a moment of quiet, I curled into a ball and watched the shadows outside grow longer.
The ladder creaked, and I sat up abruptly. “Whoa. It’s just me,” I heard him say, his voice somber. “You ran right past me. I thought it was a signal to get lost, until you called my name.”
Had I? I folded my arms over the back of the chair and rested my chin on top. “How are you holding up?”
He shrugged, looking so tired. “You saw the highlights.” He took a sip from the red plastic cup in his hand. “You?”
I shivered, and pushed the memory down yet again. Later. “Not bad,” I lied, and forced a smile.
“Right.” He shook his head, then chuckled under his breath as he stared into his cup. He walked to the endtable and poured himself another shot. “That’s not what Tillie said,” he told me after he made it disappear. When I started to blow him off again, I faltered under his stare. “That’s not what I can see with my own two eyes, either.” His voice rose when accused me, ”Do you think I can’t tell?”
His anger was cutting, and my fake smile slipped.
“Talk to me, Riley. Tell me what happened.” He scowled, looking more dangerous than I’d ever seen him. “Was it Parker?”
“Parker?” I asked, caught off balance. How could Parker hurt me? I rode that train of thought back to the station, then I turned pale. “What? No! I just …” I rubbed my eyes.
Hearing his name brought back how I’d felt when Ethan walked out of the Gennie. It would have been better if the demon had eaten that man. And then, quick on it’s heels, no! That is not who I am. But no one else had put the thought in there. Maybe I really was a monster.
“Then talk to me,” he pleaded.
The only thing that was going to get him to give up was the truth. Or, at least, a version of it. “Yeah, something happened. But it wasn’t Parker, or you, or … anyone else here.” Because they weren’t here anymore. You wouldn’t remember him if I told you. I don’t want you to think I’m crazy. “Please, just drop it.”
“Did your dad call?” he asked, ignoring me.
“Ethan,” I warned him, feeling my heart sink even more. Dad as a topic was …
“I know, he’s off limits. Just like everything else about you.”
It stabbed as deep as he’d meant it to. “That’s not fair,” I accused him, but I felt each word like a wound of its own. “If you just came up here looking for a fight, you can leave.”
He started to, then hesitated with his hand on the ladder. “I didn’t. Didn’t come up here to fight.” He looked at me, pleading. “I can’t stay in Acorn anymore, Riley. I walked out on the only paycheck I could get around here, like some kid.” He wiped his face with his hand. “And I don’t want to go.”
He dropped his temper, but I picked it up. “You quit because he provoked you into it!” Ethan shook his head, trying to shoulder all of the blame. “I was there, remember? He wanted someone cheap. Someone he could take advantage of. You’re not either one of those things.”
His lips curled into a hint of his smile. “Thanks.”
I felt like he was still about to leave, and despite what I’d said, I didn’t want that. My thoughts scrambled for something more, and I remembered the will.
“You don’t have to go. You do plenty around here. Odd jobs. The farm. Now that you have some free time, I wouldn’t mind a lock on my window, and I don’t expect a freebie.” He laughed softly at that, so I shifted to one side of the chair and patted the cushion. “You don’t need to go.”
Casting me a careful, doubtful look, he shook his head. I pointed an accusation at him and tried to say lightly, “before you made things weird, you were one of my best friends. Are you still?” I surprised myself when my voice didn’t crack.
He hung his head as he came over, looking defeated as he collapsed into the other side of the chair. “That can’t be my life, Riley,” he said, avoiding the elephant that settled between us. “I can’t keep hoping that enough odd jobs come along so that I can barely cover our bills. Maybe it’s time I grew up. Left home. Got a real job in the city, like all my friends. Maybe it’s time I found out what I’m supposed to be doing with my own life. Zoey’s leaving. Mom has Connor.” He pressed his thumb into his forehead and tried to gaze into his future.
I shrugged. “That would sound really convincing if I didn’t know you.” His laugh sounded sarcastic, so I pressed on to prove it. “You didn’t need to be here this whole time if that’s all you cared about. You could have worked a better job in Rolla or Springfield. Sent more money home than you earn here.” I wasn’t getting through, so I took his hand. The look he gave me broke my heart. “You’re here because you love it here.”
He grinned a little. “Ooh, touching. How very un-Riley of you.”
“I can let go,” I threatened him.
He put his hand over mine. “What if I did go. Would you come with me?” I drew back a bit, but he didn’t release my hands. “You said you’re getting to the end of the classes you can take out here. Clinicals are coming up, and Acorn doesn’t exactly have a hospital. And Zoey’s still pining to be roommates. If you came with us, we could all get what we want at the end of the day.”
“You told me no on that just yesterday. Remember?”
“Things changed,” he said simply.
I shrugged, torn between what I wanted and what he did. Finally, I gave up and leaned back into the chair beside him. If I was going to turn him down, he should get to know why.
“I barely knew my mom,” I told him softly, my eyes trailing over her painting on the wall. “Maybe I don’t remember everything clearly, but I think we were all happy back then. When she left, Dad changed. Things got … colder. He had to work all of the time, and I was… in the way.”
He squeezed my hand, but that was all. He’d tried to get me to talk about it once before, and I’d shut him down pretty hard. That he hadn’t tried again was a kindness I’d never been able to thank him for without bringing the topic back up.
“She was an artist, and a doctor, and had all of these amazing, successful friends. As I got older, I realized that I didn’t have any of that. Her friends stopped coming around. I was … lonely.
“Then I found out that Grandpa was still alive here, in this place that made her into that amazing person, I had to come. I told Dad it was to cut down on room and board, and all of that, but really it was so I could meet him. Be here. I had to know who she was, so I could figure out how to do it, too.”
I smiled at him, and this time it wasn’t forced. “And I think it worked. I have amazing friends in you, and Ms. Tillie, and even Lou-”
I cut myself off, and felt a squeeze in my throat. Later, I promised again.
“I have a family here, and I might not have him for very much longer. I can’t leave yet.”
He shifted closer to me. “I don’t know where we are right now, but I hope I can still do this much.” He put his arm around my shoulders, and I leaned into him without much hesitation. He lay his cheek against the top of my head, and I listened to the rhythm of his breathing.
I felt … safe. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if there were more of those shadows out there. At that moment all I wanted was to feel the strength in his arms, and the warmth of him beside me, and pretend like everything was going to be like this for as long as it could. Secretly, I was glad that he and Zoey were leaving soon. I didn’t think I could bear it if anything happened to them.
“But,” he continued after a long silence, “if you wanted to clue me in on where we’re at, I wouldn’t mind that either.”
I laughed into his shirt. “We’re close. Can that be good enough for now?” I asked, and he squeezed my shoulders in acceptance. “And I think we’ll always have that, even if you decide your place is out there.”
“Well, that’s a start,” he said. I felt him kiss the top of my head like the brother I needed him to be. We watched the shadows together until the sun dipped under the horizon, each of us lost in our own troubles.